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What Is Insomnia? Symptoms, Causes + 5 Natural Remedies

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What is insomnia? - Dr. Axe

One of the most common things I hear from my readers is, “Dr. Axe, I can’t sleep.” If you’re one of those people who has trouble falling asleep, you struggle with insomnia, or you wake up frequently during the night, know that these problems are all very common.

It’s believed that up to 30–50 percent of the general population is affected by acute (short-term) insomnia at any given time, and up to 10 percent have chronic insomnia that lasts more than several months. (1) What is insomnia exactly? Having insomnia is another way of saying that you can’t fall or stay asleep.

Meanwhile, there are many insomnia causes to consider that might be the root of your problem. For example, not having a regular sleep-wake cycle, eating an unhealthy diet, chronic pain and emotional stress can also disrupt your ability to sleep. Insomnia affects women more often than men and is more likely to affect older adults, those of lower socioeconomic (income) status, chronic alcoholics, and people with mental health conditions like depression.

Below, I’m going to walk you through the top insomnia remedies I have found to work best. I’ll provide the exact steps you need to follow in order to get better quality sleep, including tips to help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep throughout the night. If you’ve been saying to yourself for a while now, “I can’t sleep,” I believe these natural insomnia remedies may help you turn around the underlying causes of your sleep-related struggles.


What Is Insomnia? 

What does it mean if you have insomnia? The definition of insomnia is “habitual sleeplessness or the inability to sleep.” Everybody struggles to get a good night’s sleep now and then, but insomnia is different because it’s an ongoing problem that causes sleep disruption despite someone having the chance to get good sleep (for example, you can’t stay asleep even though you lay in bed for many hours at night).

Not only does having insomnia cause sleep deprivation and typically day time fatigue, but, according to the Sleep Foundation, insomnia can also cause a number of other physical and mental problems. People dealing with insomnia commonly report feeling moody, dissatisfied with how much energy they have and frustrated that they can’t seem to concentrate or perform at work or in school. (2)

Did you know that there are different types of insomnia that are characterized by their symptoms and causes? The types of insomnia include the following: (3, 4)

  • Acute insomnia is brief and normally happens in response to a stressful event or major life change.  This type lasts less than 3 weeks and may cause restless sleep several times per week. It is typically triggered by something that makes you feel worried, upset or nervous, such as a big presentation at work, exam, health problem or relationship change. Usually, acute insomnia resolves once the stressful event has passed, or at least after you’ve accepted it more.
  • Chronic insomnia lasts at least three to four weeks and occurs at least three times per week. There are many different reasons why someone might struggle with ongoing, chronic insomnia (more on these causes below). To help reverse chronic insomnia usually requires making lifestyle changes, addressing underlying causes of stress, and sometimes working with a medical professional (such as a therapist or doctor) to come up with a treatment plan.
  • Comorbid insomnia: Comorbid insomnia is when sleeping difficulty occurs with another health condition that’s associated with changes in sleep. Some medical conditions, like depression, can cause insomnia, and pain or muscle conditions, like back pain or restless leg syndrome, can make it hard to fall and stay asleep. A similar insomnia category is what’s called psychophysiological insomnia, which is when insomnia symptoms are caused by cognitive, behavioral and psychological factors.
  • Sleep onset or initial insomnia: This is when a person has trouble falling sleep initially, but doesn’t tend to wake up in middle of the night.
  • Maintenance or middle insomnia: This is when a person has trouble maintaining sleep and is often waking up in middle of the night.
  • Late or terminal insomnia: This is when a person wakes up too early in the morning and cannot go back to sleep.

Insomnia Causes

What are the causes of insomnia? Not being able to sleep is highly tied to stress and changes in hormone production and neurotransmitter levels in the brain known to be involved with sleep and wakefulness. Some of the most common reasons that someone might develop insomnia include: (5)

  • Not having healthy “sleep habits”, such as staying up late to work or watch TV. Drinking alcohol and caffeine or eating sugary/processed foods close to bed time can also disrupt sleep.
  • Not sleeping in a very dark or cool enough room. Artificial lights in your bedroom and heat can both keep you up at night.
  • Dealing with chronic stress or acute stress due to certain life changes or circumstances.
  • Changes in your environment, such as from moving or traveling.
  • Not having a regular sleep-wake routine. For example, shift work can disrupt sleep because it interferes with your body’s circadian rhythm. We get the best sleep when we wake up and go to sleep at roughly the same time each day.
  • Having a mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression. Chronic insomnia is considered “comorbid” (a common disorder that happens at the same time as another) and commonly linked to another medical or psychiatric issues.
  • Being sick or dealing with a health problem that causes digestive issues during the night.
  • Chronic pain that makes it hard to get comfortable, such as low back pain, arthritis or neck pain.
  • Sleep apnea and other breathing problems
  • Limb movement disorders.
  • Taking certain medications (such as psychotropic drugs), such as those that cause increased heart rate, nervousness, frequent urination at night, etc. This can include drugs used to treat colds, nasal allergies, high blood pressure, heart disease, thyroid disease, birth control, asthma and depression.

Insomnia Symptoms 

To understand what is insomnia, it’s key to find out the most common insomnia symptoms. These include: (6)

  • Difficulty falling asleep or waking up frequently during the night. Difficulty falling asleep is a sleep “onset” problem, while trouble staying asleep is a “maintenance” problem.
  • Feeling stressed while trying to sleep, which usually means laying in bed with racing thoughts or experiencing physical symptoms.
  • Feeling exhausted/fatigued during the daytime. This can cause poor concentration and focus, difficulty with memory and impaired motor coordination.
  • Low moods, irritability and difficulty with social interactions.
  • Reduced quality of life and increased risk of developing depression, obesity and cardiovascular disease. In fact, some studies show that adults with insomnia are almost four times as likely to become depressed compared to those who don’t have insomnia.
  • Decreased job performance and higher risk for motor vehicle crashes, work-related accidents and other occupational errors. All of these increase the odds of experiencing some type of disability.

Conventional Insomnia Treatment 

How do you cure insomnia, according to conventional medicine? There isn’t a “cure” for insomnia, but rather ways to help prevent and manage it. Insomnia treatments can be both non-pharmacologic (non-medical) and pharmacologic (medical, such as using prescription drugs). Many experts feel that combining medical and non-medical treatments results in the most successful outcomes.

Some treatment approaches that doctors and therapists may use to manage insomnia symptoms include:

  • Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) techniques to help address causes of stress.
  • Lifestyle changes to promote better sleep patterns. Most doctors would agree with me that some of the best insomnia remedies include exercise, eating a healthy diet and decreasing caffeine, alcohol and drug use.
  • In some cases when deemed necessary, use of medications including benzodiazepine sedatives and non-benzodiazepine sedatives. If your doctor or healthcare provider determines that you would benefit from medications for insomnia, he or she will may prescribe one of the following types of drugsL
    • Benzodiazepines: These are a type of sleeping pill that are used to induce sleep for a long period of time. Possible side effects of these kinds of drugs include withdrawal symptoms, drowsiness during the day, unsteadiness, confusion and memory impairment. Examples of benzodiazepines include Ativan, Valium and Doral.  (7)
    • Non-benzodiazepine hypnotics: Non-benzodiazepines (also referred to as “Z drugs”) are sedatives that are used to treat insomnia because they act on the GABA receptor. These types of medications have become the most common prescribed hypnotic agents in the world. Possible side effects of Z drugs include memory loss, physical and psychomotor effects, such as falls or car accidents, fatigue and withdrawal symptoms. Examples of non-benzodiazepines include Lunesta, Sonata, Ambien, Edluar and Intermezzo. (8)
    • Melatonin receptor agonists: These types of drugs are used to treat insomnia, sleep disorders and depression. These medications bind to and activate the melatonin receptor, helping to improve your circadian rhythm and sleeping patterns. A common type of melatonin receptor agonist is Rozerem, which may cause dizziness and drowsiness during the day. (9)
  • Use of melatonin, a hormone that is released by the pineal gland in response to darkness that helps regulate the circadian rhythm and sleep-wake cycle.
  • Short term use of antihistamines that have sedative properties, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), that induce drowsiness.

Insomnia Test & Sleep Studies

If you’ve been struggling at night to fall or stay asleep, you may want to get tested for insomnia. There is no one definitive test for insomnia that doctors use, but signs and clues that can lead to a diagnosis. If you find that you repeatedly can’t sleep, first discuss potential insomnia causes with your doctor and/or therapist. Let your doctor know about all insomnia symptoms you’re experiencing, including those that are emotional and physical. He or she will likely want to perform a medical exam, talk to you about any recent life changes and discuss your medical history.

Your doctor might also suggest that you take part in a sleep study test. Sleep studies/sleep tests are used to determine if insomnia is caused by conditions such as breathing problems, sleep apnea or limb movement disorders (like restless leg syndrome).

An insomnia test (which is called a polysomnography) is conducted at a sleep laboratory that has rooms for you to sleep in for 1–2 nights. During your sleep, you will be connected to an EEG and monitored at different stages of sleep in order to indicate how long you spend in deep, restful sleep. This is a non-invasive test that is used to indicate the extent of your sleeping difficulty. Your body movements, breathing patterns, heart rate and oxygen levels overnight will also be tested.

You can also help determine if you may have insomnia by taking an online assessment at home, such as the ones offered by the London Sleep Center or Sleep Education website.

If you are not ready to be monitored for insomnia, but you want to keep track of your sleeping patterns, you can keep a sleep log. A sleep log tracks your bedtime and wakeup time. You can also note how many times you woke up and how you feel throughout the day. This may help your healthcare provider to determine the cause of your insomnia and the extent of your sleep disturbance.

There are also devices that you can wear that will monitor your sleep from home. Although the results won’t be as accurate as what you would receive after an insomnia test in a lab, this can serve as a useful tool if you are unsure about how many hours of sleep you are getting every night. (10)


5 Insomnia Remedies 

So, what should you do when you can’t sleep? Here are the top insomnia remedies I recommend implementing:

1. Change Your Diet

Step No. 1 in overcoming insomnia and sleep deprivation is to change your diet. It’s surprising to a lot of people to hear that their diets are keeping them from falling asleep; but your diet plays a huge role in normal hormone and neurotransmitter production, which is key in allowing you to feel relaxed and sleepy. Meal timing can also impact your sleep — try not to go to bed feeling hungry, which may wake you up due to low blood sugar. On the other hand, you also don’t want to eat right before you sleep. Most people should aim to eat about 2–4 hours before going to sleep.

  • Before you go to bed, I recommend you drop your carbohydrate and sugar consumption. If you’re consuming too many sugars and carbs at night, your body is burning through those and getting warm, which prevents you from comfortably going to to sleep. That means you must lower your sugar, grain and overall carbohydrate intake before bed, being careful to avoid desserts and processed grain products (like ice cream, cookies, cake, bread, etc.).
  • For long-lasting insomnia relief, it’s also key to get some healthy fats in your system to help you fall asleep soon after your head hits the pillow. For example, both avocado and organic yogurt (without sugar) can work extremely well here, as those foods are high in healthy fatty acids, plus magnesium and potassium.
  • Many people aren’t aware that they suffer from low potassium or have signs of a magnesium deficiency, as both are crucial nutrients you need to help your body feel relaxed so you can sleep.

These are the top foods I recommend eating if you struggle with insomnia:

  • Foods high in tryptophan —This amino acid stimulates the production of serotonin, which helps promote relaxation. Tryptophan foods include those high in protein, such as turkey, chicken or tuna. It’s best not to over-consume protein to increase tryptophan uptake — the best way to increase levels in your brain is to eat balanced meals that include some complex carbs, protein and fat. (11) Having these with dinner may help you feel sleepier afterwards.
  • Complex carbohydrates — Carbohydrates can also help with the production of serotonin, but you don’t want to have simple carbs and sugar that can spike your energy level at night. Try to include starchy veggies like butternut squash or sweet potatoes in your dinner to help release serotonin.
  • Raw milk — Although dairy can be problematic for some, a glass of raw milk before bed does help many get better sleep. Organic dairy products that are unsweetened are best. A2 dairy is recommended from goat’s, sheep or A2 cows.
  • Foods high in magnesium — Magnesium is known as the “relaxation” mineral, plus it fights muscle cramps and headaches that might keep you up. Include green leafy vegetables, sesame and sunflower seeds, raw cocoa, fermented/raw dairy, and oats in your diet to boost your magnesium intake.
  • B vitamins — Organic meat, brewer’s yeast, liver and green leafy vegetables are all high in B vitamins, including vitamin B12. B vitamins support the nervous system and some people report that their insomnia symptoms diminish noticeably once they begin taking B-complex vitamins. (12)

These are the foods and beverages that I recommend you limit or avoid to get better sleep:

  • Caffeine — Don’t consume caffeine after noon or at all if you are having difficulty sleeping. Try switching from coffee to green tea if possible, since tea has a lower caffeine content and many health benefits.
  • Alcohol — Stop drinking alcohol at least 2 hours before bed and drink in moderation. Try drinking no more than 1 alcoholic drink per hour and ideally not more than 1-2 drinks per day.
  • Any potential food allergens — Food allergies can cause restlessness, GI issues and other symptoms that contribute to insomnia. Avoid food groups like dairy, gluten, shellfish or nuts if they contribute to any discomfort.
  • Sugar — Variations in blood sugar levels can cause symptoms of anxiety/nervousness and trouble sleeping. Avoid high-sugar foods and switch to using organic stevia extract to sweeten foods instead.
  • Processed fats — Too much fat at night can slow down digestion and may lead to indigestion. This is especially true if you deal with heartburn/acid reflux at night. Limit fried foods, processed meats like bacon or salami, low-quality cheeses and other fatty meals before bedtime. Have healthy fats instead like coconut oil, olive oil, ghee or grass-fed butter, avocado, nuts and seeds; spread your fat intake out throughout the day for help controlling your appetite and energy levels.

2. Reduce Stress

One of the greatest insomnia remedies is reducing stress and promoting relaxation. For most people, along with diet, this is a major culprit for keeping you up at night — your mind starts racing with ceaseless thinking and you’re seemingly unable to shut your brain off.

There are several ways in which stress may be keeping you up. You might not even feel very stressed, but your body and mind are reacting negatively to your environment. On top of my article about natural stress relievers, here are tips for dealing with stress:

  • Avoid watching TV and using electronics that are visual stimulants, especially those that emit blue light. This doesn’t just include the TV screen; it also includes your computer, your iPad or your smartphone, which too often reside next to people’s beds. That blue light actually tells your pineal gland in your brain that it needs to keep running, so it messes with your circadian rhythms and cortisol levels and keeps you from falling asleep at night when you were looking at that bright blue light in the computer screens and TV screens. I recommend that for about 30 minutes at least, ideally an hour, before bed, you need to shut off all electronics. Many devices also feature a mode that reduces the blue light emitting from your devices, which may be a good option during the several hours before bed as well.
  • Start reading something that helps you relax or start journaling. The simplest step can be reading a novel, a devotional, your Bible or anything that helps you relax and wind down at least 30 minutes before bed. For journaling, get out a notebook and start writing things down; you can even look at your schedule for the next day and write that down. If you have something that’s really stressing you out and keeping you from sleeping at night, I recommend you start writing those items down. Work on addressing those the best you can, and then start scheduling things into the week that you love to do. It is so important.
  • Practice gratitude before bed. If you’ve had a great day and been feeling happy, it actually creates certain hormones in your body known as endorphins that help you fall asleep at night.
  • Exercise is one of the most natural ways to create endorphins, so consider exercise my prescription for a good night’s sleep, especially for children and teenagers who have trouble sleeping. Try getting at least 30–60 minutes of exercise most days of the week, ideally outdoors, if the weather allows.

3. Take Quality Supplements

Step No. 3 is to take quality supplements, especially a magnesium supplement, to cure insomnia without drugs. In addition, supplements like melatonin can help, or valerian root, but I don’t recommend using those on a long-term basis.

  • Calcium and magnesium (500 mg calcium/250 mg magnesium) — These minerals work together for relaxation. Taking a magnesium supplement, about 400 to 500 milligrams a night before bed, can help you naturally reduce stress and really improve sleep. I recommend a high-quality magnesium chelate or magnesium citrate before bed. (13)
  • Melatonin (1–3 mg half hour before bed) — Helps promote sleep, best used for a short period of time. (14) If you have jet lag, or you’re not able to sleep just for a day or two, taking melatonin on occasion, about three grams, is fine. But you just want to do a small amount of melatonin on occasion, not on a regular basis, for it can be habit-forming.
  • Passion flower (500 mg before bed, or in tea form) — Helps relax the nervous system and doesn’t cause drowsiness. (15)
  • Valerian Root (600 mg before bed) — Increases your brain’s GABA levels to induce sedation, but doesn’t typically result in the morning drowsiness of many sleep-inducing medications or supplements. (16, 17)
  • Vitamin B12 (1500 mcg daily) — Vitamin B12 supports cellular function and a deficiency can cause problems with circadian rhythms. (18)

4. Use Essential Oils

The next step to truly help you improve your sleep is using essential oils, especially lavender essential oil and chamomile essential oil.

Chamomile, whether in tea, tincture or essential oil form, is one of the best medicinal herbs for fighting stress and promoting relaxation. (19) Inhaling chamomile vapors is often recommended as a natural remedy for anxiety and general depression, which is one reason why chamomile oil is a popular ingredient in many candles, aromatherapy products and bath-soaking treatments.

Lavender oil is another sleep-promoting natural insomnia remedy. (20) You can diffuse lavender by your bed at night or just take a few drops and rub it on your neck. The benefits of lavender oil include having certain aromatic compounds that help relax your body. Also, you can take a warm bath with lavender oil and Epsom salts, which may work due to the presence of magnesium.

If you’re going to go to bed at 10 p.m. or 10:30 p.m., do a detox bath by starting the process at around 9 p.m. Take about 20 drops of lavender oil, rub it all on your body and get into a warm/hot bath with Epsom salts, and relax there for about 20 to 30 minutes. When you get out, go and read a book for 30 minutes in bed and then fall asleep there at night.

5. Change Your Lifestyle to Improve “Sleep Hygiene”

Last but not least, you probably need to change your lifestyle and adjust the environment in your bedroom (lights, temperature, noise, etc.) in order to find insomnia relief. For example, sleep experts and myself recommend a few things to do around your bedroom/home to help improve your sleep: (21)

  • Keep a regular sleep and awakening schedule. This trains your body to feel sleepy or energized at certain points in the day.
  • Try not to oversleep certain days of the weeks (more than 9 hours) which can throw off sleep on other nights. Also avoid taking long naps in the daytime.
  • Keep your bedroom very dark. Use blackout blinds/shades if you need to, get rid of light-emitting devices and clocks and consider wearing a sleep mask.
  • Keep the temperature in your house cold while you feel, definitely below 70 degrees and possibly into the mid-60s if necessary. In the winter, make sure the heat source has been turned down. A cold but comfortable house should help improve your sleep.
  • Make sure your bed is comfortable. If there is a big dip in your bed, it’s time to pick a healthier bed.
  • Do not smoke, since nicotine is a stimulant which can mess with hormone production.
  • Don’t exercise or do anything that increases cortisol or your heart rate too close to bedtime.

Precautions 

If you’ve been dealing with insomnia symptoms for more than 2–3 weeks, especially if you’re unsure why, then talk to your doctor about potential treatment options. It’s possible that your insomnia is the symptom or side effect of another problem, so it’s important to identify the underlying cause.

Before self-treating insomnia with drugs, alcohol or other medications, I strongly suggest you discuss with your doctor or therapist what types of insomnia remedies may help.


Final Thoughts on Insomnia Remedies

  • Insomnia is habitual sleeplessness or the inability to sleep. There are many insomnia causes which can include: stress, poor lifestyle habits, poor diet, mental health issues, illness, chronic pain, and use of some medications.
  • People who are more likely to deal with insomnia symptoms include men, older adults, people with stressful lifestyles, alcoholics, people who smoke and use drugs, and those with psychiatric or mood-related problems.
  • Lifestyle changes can greatly help to regulate sleep patterns. Good sleep habits including exercising daily, healthy diet, supplements, stress relief and essential oils can all help make it easier for you to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Read Next: 5 Breathing Exercises to Reduce Stress & Improve Sleep


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